Sunday, March 22, 2015

Looking Back in Gratitude, And Forward with Faith: The Stanford MSx Experience

9 months ago, I joined 88 other MSx fellows entering the class of 2015. We have had the time of our lives, and now we are counting down the days to graduation; soon many people will be asking me how the program went. Friends, family, and prospective/future students, I’m writing this for you.

The Camaraderie of Fellows

If you had told me a year ago that I would find a family among fellow students from diverse cultures and industries, I would not have believed you. I did my undergraduate in UPenn, I know what an American college is like, and I made some great friends, especially among people quite similar to me. But the MSx program has been different. It is such a small community, 66% international from almost every continent, that we are forced to interact by design. And because everyone comes ready to step out of their comfort zone, I’ve made more and better friends than I ever thought possible in a year.

One good example of interaction by design is the study groups that we are formed into for the first quarter. There were 5 in my group: 2 from the US, 1 from the UK and 2 from Asia. We were taken through some invaluable team-bonding exercises during the orientation - that was necessarily awkward - and very quickly we sized each other up and realised we each brought very different things to the table. We took turns leading the study group through the various core classes of the summer quarter, and over time that personal pride at not wanting to be seen as deadwood became a genuine care for each other, and we would put in inordinate amounts of time teaching each other. We debated this recently - whether we worked way harder than was necessary in Summer, but concluded that it was really team-bonding. And since then, our team from that first quarter have become family, and our families have become extended family.

I knew I was in the right place when we did the ice bucket challenge together, about a month into the year. No, it is not a shared cause that bonded us, in fact I thought it was a silly fad and initially opposed it. But after we decided to accept the challenge together, we made it happen. And 48 hours later, we held what I believe is one of the most epic ice bucket videos ever. We did not have long meetings or detailed plans - we just made a list of who does what, and if things fell through the cracks someone just picked them up. It was an amazing experience working with a high performing team for a common goal.

Official Unofficial MSx Ice Bucket Video (by Ric Netto)

Here is a short account from a night out we had during our East Coast Study Trip at the end of the first quarter, just as we were beginning to all get to know each other a little better:
If you find yourself on the dance floor near a large group of strangers dancing together, is your first instinct to break into the circle and join them? 
I certainly would not, and in all my previous experiences in bars and clubs, neither would most people. Which is why I found it all the more strange, during our study trip to New York, that there could be 20 of us Sloan fellows grooving in a circle, and random strangers would come in and join us. Even more mind-boggling, we had women pushing their way in amongst our mostly-male group. 
So what was going on here? 
Perhaps the people of New York are just really friendly. Or as one fellow suggested, perhaps our group seemed so fun and welcoming that other people felt compelled to join in. My personal conclusion is that our group of Fellows is so ethnically diverse that these strangers probably had no idea we were actually a single group. They probably thought we had randomly descended on NYC from all corners of the world, and since we were being so friendly mingling with each other they wanted in on it
Nights out in NYC and DC

We just ended our second study trip to Seattle, where we met alumni from as long as 20 years ago. All of them shared such fond memories of the program as the best year of their lives, and all of them said the best thing they got from the program was the friendships. It is indeed a privilege to have been selected into a group of fellows who are not only high achievers in their various fields, but also simply humble and genuine human beings. So whatever the admissions people are doing to put the class together, they are doing it right and we have told them so.

The Extended MSx Family

For families with young kids like mine, I can guarantee there is no better place than Stanford. The college has catered special housing for families within Escondido Village (EV), and each community comprises a cluster of tiny town houses enclosing a courtyard. Within the courtyard are pathways, grassy fields and playgrounds -- a kid’s paradise. This is the perfect setting for the partners and children to become the best of friends, even as the fellows are together in class. Over play dates, birthday parties and dinner parties, whole families build lasting bonds of friendship. On any other campus, the families would be split up and fending for themselves, but here we have community. And we know that anywhere we travel in the future, there will be a friendly family waiting to welcome us.
Eye Level: A typical late winter afternoon, families sit around and kids play in the EV courtyard
Bird's Eye: EV comprises many self-contained courtyards, as well as mid-rise apartment blocks (photo by Ric Netto)

Giving Back, Not Holding Back

Some of the biggest events including family have been the cultural sharing. It began with the Japanese Fellows in the first month, who hosted the whole class to a lovely BBQ. More communities chipped in to throw parties, each one better than the last. The most recent was the Spring Festival, which featured food, dances and booths to share various aspects of East Asian culture. It's not that we were competing, but there is this immense sense of being grateful, and wanting to give our best for our friends. One group that gives a lot are the class officers who are elected quarterly to organise events each quarter - and in Spring what I found most amazing was the number of past office holders who wanted to repeat a second (or third) term. When you feel you have received so much, do don't hold back in trying to give back more. It is a virtuous cycle, and we are all the beneficiaries. This is a spirit I really treasure, that we could create it in a group that is so short-lived.

Amazing Learning Opportunities

I’ve had lectures by Eric Schmidt (Google), Renee James (Intel), Sanjay Mehrotra (Sandisk),
Meg Whitman (eBay/HP), Evan Spiegel (Snapchat) and Biz Stone (Twitter), just to name the Presidents/CEOs/Founders who came to the classes I personally attended. We occasionally bump into Steve Balmer (Microsoft), Myron Scholes (Nobel Prize for Black-Scholes option pricing model) or George Schulz (ex-Secretary of State) who are on the faculty here. One of the fellows got roped into a game of golf with Condoleeza Rice (ex-Secretary of State). We have met Tim Cook in Starbucks, and Mark Zuckerburg is often sighted in his favourite Chinese restaurant. This is the privilege of being nestled in Silicon Valley, and having the #1 MBA in the USA as a sister program. Those were the celebrities but there are numerous exceptional professors and classes, and the quality of teaching far exceeds MBA classes I took when I was in Wharton. And by taking highly-rated classes in some very unlikely fields to stretch myself, I have had a great learning experience.

Everyone has their own selections of classes; there are too many to choose from. Some of my personal favourites from Winter quarter include Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital with Peter Wendell and Raymond Nasr, which opened my eyes to the role of Venture Capitalists and the dynamics between the investor and entrepreneur. Alphanomics with Charles Lee has provided me a better understanding of how financial markets work, the role of short sellers, and a quantitative approach to managing risk and return. I greatly enjoyed the flexibility of doing my own independent study in cyber security under Susan Athey, a leading expert in the economics of digital businesses, especially platform competition and bitcoin. I spent 2 quarters in Startup Garage, learning entrepreneurship by understanding the needs of the elderly and developing a viable business model to solve the problem of falling and death. Next quarter, I will take the GSB's famous Touch-Feely class, which is a combination of theory and experiential learning to improve interpersonal relationships. I strongly believe in finding learning opportunities that I could not have gotten from reading a book (which I do plenty of), and the array of options here is staggering. That is why Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) is a real problem.

The Fellows are another rich learning resource, with a wealth of combined experience. We have CEOs, executives, managers, entrepreneurs big and small, from all around the world. We come from tech, finance, consulting, manufacturing, energy, non-profit, government, military and even a leading politician. And then we have the mother of 5 who just sold a company and is still nursing infant twins.

Earlier this year, I decided that the price of oil was so low it was a sure bet for investment. Immediately, I got advice from a Fellow with 20 years experience in the oil and gas industry who explained the dynamics of working capital and cash flow in the industry, and advised me to invest in certain companies instead. Similarly, another fellow with 10+ years in banking advised against the oil ETFs I was considering, because they were susceptible to contango (slippage in value). I believe you can find similar advice on any entrepreneurial or investment venture you can conceive of. And these are the same people who will return to all parts of the world, that I can pick up a phone to call any time.

California Dreaming

California is a paradise of nature and the outdoors. You can kayak among the otters and sealions at Elkhorn Slough, watch the elephant seals give birth at Ano Nuevo, join an African safari in Sonoma, and there are numerous hiking trails and camping spots, whether among redwood forests or along the pacific coast. Lake Tahoe for skiing/snowboarding, Yosemite national park, Napa and Sonoma are just the most famous of the vineyards in the area. San Francisco is 40 minutes away. There are two Premium Outlets within an hour’s drive. Santa Cruz and Monterey are within 2 hours. Most families have found their way to LA Disneyland and San Diego. Let’s just say there is never a dull moment on the weekends, whether you have 2 hours or 2 days. Anybody who has followed my Facebook photos over the last year will need no convincing of that.

A few of the animals you can get really close up to

Stanford itself has great recreational facilities too, it feels like a cross between Disneyland and a country club. Golf is the favourite sport, there is an MSx soccer game most Saturday mornings, and we can squeeze tennis and squash in between classes. There is a wide range of Physical Education classes including most sports, horse riding, TRX and standard stuff like Yoga/Pilates. And it's nice that you can work out outdoors all year round.

The term breaks are also a great time to travel. Most of us never had the luxury of 3 weeks (Winter) or even 2 weeks (Spring) to roam around. The international students typically explore the USA and vicinity, while the Americans travel the world. And many fellows also opt to follow the MBA students on their global study trips, meeting movers and shakers around the world.

The Colorado River makes a spectacular horseshoe-shaped bend in Arizona, (photo by Kenny Tan)

Lower Antelope Canyon (photo by Ricardo Netto)

The Best Program For Us

For the benefit of prospective students, I would be remiss not to touch on this. Every Fellow feels tremendously privileged to be a part of this group, and no one regrets joining this program. Compared to the folks at MIT's Sloan or Harvard's Kennedy in Boston, which experienced record snowfall, we’ve been having pretty warm and toasty winter here although we do need jackets in the early mornings and late evenings. We just recently met the MIT Sloans when they came to visit, and there was lots of comparison of experiences. The overwhelming sentiment here was how fortunate we had been to choose Stanford, and it wasn't just the weather.

We also interact a lot with the Stanford MBAs who are a great bunch, but they made me realize I feel more at home among peers of comparable age and work experience (10 - 20 years), rather than being the oldest member of an MBA program. And no one wants to study part-time if they can afford it. So compared with any other Sloan program, executive MBA or MBA, the MSx program has managed to strike the right delicate balance for us - successful mid-career leaders looking for personal renewal and learning opportunities, to bring our careers to the next level. For more comparisons between Stanford and MIT, see my answer on Quora.

Of Course Nothing Is Perfect

Stanford is great, but it’s not perfect. This is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in. We work very hard, but we play hard too. And there isn’t much of a vibrant night life (you won’t really mind if you have a family), so instead people head to San Francisco or Las Vegas. The worst part for everyone is going home at the end of it -- is it better to have loved and lost or never to have loved at all?

In short, we are grateful for the privilege of being part of this great class. Most of us don't know what the future holds, but we have faith that we have been well-prepared. One final word of wisdom...

Update 12 Apr 2015:
If you liked the above account, be sure to check out the welcome video for a multi-sensory review of the year, which we put together to give the class of 2016 a foretaste of what is to come.

Stanford GSB MSx 2016 Welcome Video (by Ric Netto)